The Persuasions, giants of Brooklyn streetcorner a cappella.
The Grateful Dead, giants of San Francisco ‘60’s psychedelia.
Dead right, says official Grateful Dead biographer Dennis McNally:
“What the Persuasions did,” said McNally, author of Long Strange Trip: the Inside History of the Grateful Dead, “was hear the incredible strength of the great song-writing and melodies at the root of the Dead’s music and transport them into their own world, the world of the voice. Or rather voices. And the result is a sweet, magical transformation.”
It’s also a surprisingly natural fit. The Persuasions’ 40 years of recording is legendarily eclectic, covering everyone from Sam Cooke to Frank Zappa to Kurt Weill to the Oak Ridge Boys to The (gasp) Partridge Family. And the Grateful Dead’s influences are almost encyclopedic.
So the roots and influences to be found on Persuasions of the Dead are truly sweeping: Appalachian folk, blues, bluegrass, R&B, “old timey,” jazz, gospel, streetcorner, African-American call-and-answer, country, rock ‘n’ roll, soul, hamboning, even avant-garde, musique concrete, and yes, Chinese folk melody.
Really. It’s all there---united by the warm, vivacious, unpretentious singing of Jerry Lawson, Jimmy Hayes, “Sweet Joe” Russell, Jayotis Washington, and Raymond Sanders.
But back to “Long, Strange Trip.” This album was twelve years in the making. It began as project originator/executive producer Rip Rense’s follow-up to The Persuasions’ critically hailed tribute to Frank Zappa (who first signed them to a record deal), Frankly A Cappella. Rense, who was guiding the group’s recording career, thought the Persuasions’ soulful vocal wonderment could translate the Dead’s songbook for non-Deadheads (and please the ‘heads as well.)
“The Grateful Dead repertory, especially the collaborations of Hunter-Garcia, is a great American songbook of myth and melody,” said Rense. “But the Dead’s reputation as ‘hippie-dippie,’ perpetuated by the mainstream media, kept people from appreciating this. I thought The Persuasions might reveal the intrinsic greatness and fun of these songs. Fortunately, they agreed.”
The basic sessions for all but six tracks originally took place in 1999, and an album was released on Arista, Might as Well. While it was an endearing document of the sessions, Rense thought the album---out of print since 2002---could have been much more. Three years ago, he approached The Persuasions about re-producing the whole thing.
“I thought it would have benefitted from more production, more concept, some tweaking, overdubs, reconfiguring,” said Rense. “So I went to the guys and basically said, let’s reinvent this thing.”
The Persuasions were dead-set. . .for it.
Now, expanded to two CDs, with six new tracks, six new guest artists, the sessions have indeed been re-produced, rearranged, remixed, remastered, and really, re-imagined, from scratch. What’s more, Persuasions of the Dead is configured like a Grateful Dead concert, with “first set” (CD 1) of straight-ahead performances, and “second set” (CD 2) of more stretched-out takes, with segues, reprises, surprises. . .
And yes, even Persuasions versions of the Dead concert staples of exploratory weirdness, “Drumz,” and “Space.” “The Persuasions wanted a do-over, and here it is,” said McNally. “New tracks, changed tracks, an altogether new version of one of the more remarkable musical encounters of the recent past –- the inspired masters of blues/gospel-based a cappella singing address the music of the Grateful Dead.”
With a crowning touch provided by old Persuasions fan Tom Waits, who christened the project Persuasions of the Dead.
“These guys are deep-sea fishermen,” Waits once famously said of The Persuasions. “I’m just a fisherman in a boat.”
The Persuasions. Photo : Susan Millman.
And the boat carrying this deep-sea album is ZOHO Music.
“Having been a fan of The Persuasions since my student days in Germany in the 1970s, I was aware of their initial tribute record to the Grateful Dead for a long time,” said ZOHO head Jochen Becker.
“Imagine my surprise therefore when ‘Persuasions of the Dead’ landed on my desk a couple of months ago. I was hooked by the sheer musical inventiveness of the Persuasions’ renewed musical journey through the Grateful Dead songbook. You’ve got to admire the sheer audacity and musical fearlessness of both The Persuasions and the producer Rip Rense to create this project. It is not only visionary in its successful combination of Dead’s and the Persuasions’ musical cultures, but it is also downright fun to listen to!”
Some of that fun comes from non-Persuasions. While the album is largely a cappella, The Pers, as they are known to fans, are joined by a host of wonderful soloists, many with strong links to the Grateful Dead. For Persuasions of the Dead, Rense invited Jackie LaBranch and Gloria Jones, longtime back-up singers for the Jerry Garcia Band, Bob Weir & Ratdog lead guitarist Mark Karan, saxophonist James King, erhu virtuoso Dongming Qiao, vocal trumpeter Alyn Kelley, and the great Country Joe McDonald.
They join guest artists invited to the 1999 sessions by original album co-producers David Gans and Jerry Lawson: the late Grateful Dead keyboardist Vince Welnick, old Garcia musical cronies Eric Thompson (mandolin), Pete Grant (guitar), Grammy-Award-winning bluegrass musician Peter Rowan (vocal), and the now-defunct Berkeley female vocal group, Mary Schmary.
“It’s great to have the beautiful voices of Jackie and Gloria on seven tracks here, and it’s particularly great to have Country Joe,” said Rense. “He’s sort of a musical cousin of The Persuasions and the Dead, as he had The Persuasions on his 1979 album, Leisure Suite. Then The Persuasions recorded Joe’s kids’ song, ‘I’m So Glad (I’ve Got Skin)’ on their children’s album, On The Good Ship Lollipop. You factor in Joe’s longtime friendship with Garcia, who played on his Superstitious Blues album, and the one or two songs he co-wrote with Garcia’s songwriting partner, Hunter, and it was a familial fit.”
Aside from “Drumz” and “Space,” The Persuasions recorded two brand new songs for the project, “Don’t Ease Me In” (an old blues number favored by the Dead), and the poignant Hunter-Garcia gem, “Stella Blue.” This was no easy trick, as lead singer Jerry Lawson had quit the Persuasions in 2002. That’s correct, to realize this project, Lawson agreed to reunite with his colleagues for “Stella.” This recording marks the very last time the original Persuasions sang together on record.
There is another remarkable aspect to that recording. While driving through Santa Monica one night, Rense heard the Chinese stringed instrument, erhu, coming through his car window. He stopped and found Dongming Qiao, a one-time childhood prodigy whose career was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. Qiao spoke no English, and after much translation and cajoling, this shy, self-effacing man composed and played the solo you hear on “Stella Blue.”
Two other songs discarded during the original sessions were rescued and re-worked for the album: “New Speedway Boogie,” and “Greatest Story Ever Told,” and many others were substantially rearranged. In the end, the album is certainly the most ambitious Persuasions album ever made. But it is something more than that. With Lawson’s brilliant adaptation of Hunter-Garcia’s magical songs, the many textures and surprises offered by the many guest artists, and the deep, reverberating harmonies of these legendary singers, Persuasions of the Dead transcends the “tribute album” genre.
It’s really the nicest Grateful Dead album the Grateful Dead never made. And it could get no higher compliment than this one, graciously offered by Garcia’s longtime partner, Hunter himself:
“Ever so much better! In fact, enchanting.”